Omega Ellis has spent two-and-a-half decades cooking in kitchens throughout South Jersey. She’ll open the doors to her own restaurant for the first time this spring.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 25, 2023
Just a few weeks away from the grand opening of her first restaurant, Chef Omega Ellis of Pennsauken is working to tamp down her excitement.
“I have every emotion bottled up, except for anger,” Ellis said.
“I’m anxious, I’m nervous, I am excited, I’m proud.
“I’m just happy,” she said.
The career chef is not only opening the doors to a restaurant bearing her name and outfitted to her tastes, but she’s doing it within the footprint of the former McFarlan’s Market, where Ellis once led the kitchen.
“I’ve cooked in the kitchen since I was eight years old,” she said. “Anybody who knows me will tell you, ‘Omega always wanted a restaurant.’ I’ve been working for so long for other restaurants; now it’s my time. I just wanted to give people me.”
Ellis’ touches are present both in its menu and its décor. Although she has spent more than a quarter-century cooking off and on for Camden City soul food landmark Corinne’s Place, she said Omega’s will not offer a classic soul-food experience.
“We make more than soul food,” Ellis said. “Even though those are my roots, and I can put a good rib on a plate, I just didn’t want to do that anymore.
“Everybody wants to box you into what kind of cuisine you should make,” she said. “I want it to be my experience; you are experiencing me, and not the other way around. Let me show you my personality in this place.”
The menu at Omega’s shows her attempt to “bridge the gap” between Caribbean and Southern flavors and modern American fusion. There’s a whole red snapper served with “jerty” rice, her jerk-inspired dirty rice recipe; and a jerk salmon cheesesteak, her spin on the “seasteak” popularized by Camden City seafood kitchens.
The menu doesn’t feature beef or pork, but it does have plenty of seafood, as in dishes like fish and grits, and macaroni and cheese with shrimp and crab.
Vegan meals, like the curried chickpea and chickpea “tuna” dishes for which customers at MacFarlan’s often clamored, will also appear on the menu, alongside meatless and pasta entrees.
She’ll offer a tribute to the McFarlan’s Market apple walnut salad, another customer favorite, as well as her popular soups: seafood bisque, French onion, and Greek chicken egg lemon, among others.
Desserts include peach cobbler and lemon mousse, but Ellis is particularly excited to debut her banana pudding cake: a slice of pound cake with pudding, bananas, cookies, and caramel drizzle.
Omega’s will also offer a weekly brunch buffet from 11 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. In addition to an omelet station and typical breakfast fare, diners can expect chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and home fry dishes.
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On weekend evenings, Ellis hopes to offer live, light entertainment, from atmospheric musical acts to nightclub comedy.
“I want people to come in and enjoy themselves,” she said. “Even if they come in here on a not-so-good note, they’re going to leave here on a good note. After you eat here, you’re definitely going to be feeling good. I just can’t wait to serve everybody.”
With seating for 50 to 60 guests, Omega’s will be able to accommodate parties of all sizes, and its cozy look and feel will ensure that their time there will be well spent.
Artist Kailey Burgess translated Ellis’ style cues into a design she describes as “mid-century modern meets Tropicana.” The color palette features natural wood textures, offset by swathes of rust, deep emerald, and gold.
Muted pastel curtains hang around the dining room windows; a countertop bar wraps around the rear of the dining room, offset by a subway-tile backsplash and polished metal fixtures.
A small crew comprising Burgess, Ellis, and a handful of others transformed the former corner grocery into its new life as a restaurant, reupholstering the couch in its lounge area, fabricating the hostess stand, and cutting and staining the wood slats that create the tambour effect on the bar exterior.
“I wanted it to be something that’s not here,” Burgess said. “I didn’t want it to be a regular restaurant; it’s a destination. What would make someone want to come here and feel comfortable?”
“This place looks like summertime and springtime, which is my favorite season,” Ellis said, “[but]it’s still nice and warm and comforting all year round.
“There’s a lot of love in the building,” she said. “It has character from left to right. We wanted to keep it sharp.”
Omega’s offers BYOB service, and will welcome guests for dine-in or takeout. The restaurant opens for full service April 16.
Omega’s is located at 27 South Centre Street in Merchantville. Hours are 12 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, with extended hours on weekends when live entertainment is on-hand.
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